Thursday, January 21, 2010

Global Warming – Understanding Glaciers

I get innumerable requests to feature global warming (GW) issues in my blog. While it is heartening to know that so many of my readers and friends are aware of GW it is also a difficult task to write about this complex phenomenon along with its vast and highly debatable data for normal readers. Any GW expert is more likely to use jargons and scientific formulas, historical data, pie-charts, etc to drive his point home, to the complete befuddlement of his audience at large notwithstanding. My idea here is to break it down into digestible and delectable morsels for all of you, any of you in a manner that even a child who is not a prodigy can grasp and understand and act upon in any manner possible. GW issues are vast and involve each of us, including the mute animals, insects, fishes, all our geological features, landscapes… anything and everything that resides within the geo-magnetic influence of the Earth and in the cryosphere in particular. Which could tantamount to say that even you have a gravitational pull on a galaxy 10 million light-years away – which is true but does it matter! Therefore while we try to dissect and disburse GW we would consider the factors that have a significant bearing on it. Before we embark upon GW, we got to understand several of its constituents, several of the players in this game of GW. I would write a series of posts, each covering one such player and its relation, effect and causality on and by GW. Each post will be prefixed by, as for this one, ‘Global Warming – XXXXX’. In this post we will take a look at the world’s glaciers and how they are related to GW. Point to be noted at the outset though would be that glaciers do not cause GW and they have no direct bearing whatsoever, yet we can’t understand GW without understanding glaciers. For the sake of this post, I will sum up the entire glaciated Polar Regions and all other glaciers across the world as ‘glaciers’.

This takes me back to one of my earliest trips to Oslo on a day when for the want of doing anything better I was hanging around near a public skating rink watching kids and adults pirouetting in the still cold air. An animated conversation from a young couple occupying a bench close by drew my attention. I don’t speak more than three words in Nordic tongue but the word ‘glacier’ came right through. Having spent most of my adult life scouring the world’s glaciers from different altitudes I am a self-proclaimed and autodidactic glaciologist (though I understood mass balancing in its totality only recently), so any words relating to ‘glaciers’ attract me like bee to ‘you know what’. I approached the couple and asked if they were discussing anything about glaciers. From them I learned that the next day Oslo University was hosting an international seminar on Glaciers and they were undergrad students of geology. At the appointed hour I tagged my new-found friends to the auditorium. Of all the things that happened that day what is most relevant to this post is that I met one of the world’s top authorities on glaciers and all things frozen from the NSIDC (National Snow and Ice Data Center). I asked him point blank (since I really wanted to know) exactly how many glaciers did our planet have and what really qualified as a glacier, before we begin counting them. To my surprise and his discomfort, the great man actually did not know, it seemed no one knew, though NSIDC has perhaps one of the most exhaustive data banks on such matters. He vaguely said around 100,000; and I have reasons to believe that including the Polar Regions, we have around 150,000 of those flowing bodies of ice that qualify as glaciers. From him I learned another shocking fact, that within the vast data of NSIDC covering around 20 countries that contain glaciers, there’s no mention of India, though Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan are included as is China. At that time it seemed highly prejudicial and I had asked him if he knew that Indian Himalaya had around 10000 glaciers the last time I counted. Well, I really don’t remember what his answer was but what I am trying to drive home here is if an authority like NSIDC can have flaws like this then the entire subject do deserve a much deeper look, understanding and research. By the way, since no one, and I mean absolutely no one and no authority, no organization, no research paper or book has ever quantified exactly what qualifies as a glacier except the two very obvious facts: it is a mass of ice and it flows (either due to gravity or under its own weight), I am giving it my own definition, which I have discussed with some of the world’s leading glaciologists who were unable to punch any convincing holes in my hypothesis though they all said that it won’t stand to scientific scrutiny. According to me a body or mass of ice can only be labeled as a glacier if it meets the following criteria:

a) By shape: it must have a longitudinal dimension (rectangular or square even) and can’t be round or oval. Its length must exceed its breadth to give it a definite direction to its flow.

b) By feature: it must contain ice and whole lot of it and moraines and whole lot of it and at least a dozen crevasses. It must have a gradient, however gentle.

c) By dimension: it must be at least half a km long in its length and 250 m in width at its narrowest and 50 m in thickness at its thinnest. This is the most debatable and dubious criteria in my glacier definition for which I don’t have any real argument except that I do like my glaciers to have some mass after all. Just a little tongue of an ice patch around somewhere cannot become a glacier.

d) By dynamics: it must be moving in some direction, of course down. I am yet to see a glacier flowing upstream against gravity.

e) By longevity: it must stay where it is for at least a half a century of time.

Now that we have a tad better understanding of glaciers, you might now begin to wonder where on earth are these glaciers located? Good question… let’s find out. Needless to say, I have been to all the collective glaciated regions on our planet and majority of the major ones as well. A cursory glance at Google earth or any atlas would show two major patches of white (depicting ice) on our globe, predictably around the two poles. By definition the Polar Regions comprise of the area north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle though a significant portion of Greenland lies south of the Arctic Circle. The two Polar Regions account for 95% of the glacier mass (if not in numbers) in the world and a whopping 97% of world’s fresh water reserve. Outside of the Polar Regions, the significant glaciated regions are found in North America (Alaska, Canada), South America (Peru, Chile, Argentina), Europe (Iceland, Norway, Russia, European Alps – France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria), Asia (Russia, China, India, Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, Pamirs and Hindu Kush Range, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan), New Zealand (Southern Alps). Continent wise, Africa and Australia doesn’t count on terms of glaciers since they have none. As is evident in most of the cases barring the glaciers that are relics from the last mini ice-age and at the Poles, glaciers have a direct relation to altitude. They necessarily form at high altitudes where it is cold and the earth’s reflective heat is minimal. Majority of the glaciers are away from human habitation and outside any direct influence of human activities, except the ones bordering between India, China and Pakistan where the world’s highest battlefield is located.

To find a solution we must first find the problem and in a scientific community that is far easier said than done. When we talk about global warming we must first be sure that it is happening and it is a problem and then go on to the finer aspects like why is it happening, should it be happening at all, is it natural, how are we affecting it, is it a cause for alarm, can we do anything about it, etc, etc. Finding or defining the phenomenon of GW in a scientifically proven way is where glaciers come into the lime light. On a global scale GW is so minute and seemingly insignificant that to find any tangible values we got to look at places where its effects are most apparent and measurable. Our glaciers provide that test bench mark. Glaciers and Polar Regions in particular hold many keys to our past and have a vast reservoir of data that helps us understand where we are headed in the future. Of course they also pave the way for mountaineers like me to the summits they guard. A detailed in-depth study of glaciers is beyond the scope of this post. Here we will only focus its relevance to GW.

Glaciers are basically cold reservoirs that affect our climate, weather patterns, precipitations, rainfalls, stratosphere, etc in a major way and in turn are affected by the changes in those that they affect. They are extremely sensitive to temperature changes, more so when the temperature rise. Heat melts and thaws the ice and water is released from the glaciers that run off into lakes, rivers, underground and into oceans. But for the steady melt of these ice masses humanity would have become extinct long ago, and I am not sure if we would have been created to begin with. Keeping in tune with nature, the steady natural melting of glaciers is not a bad thing at all since they keep us and all animals alive. In turn the water again turns into vapor and rises in the air and after condensation fall down replenishing the melt water. So if left to nature, the cycle is a closed one and maintains the balance quite efficiently. The problem arises when the rates of melt exceed the rates of replenishment. And GW is causing this imbalance by an exceedingly accelerated rate, much of which is due direct human activities. How many we are what we do, how we live, how and where we apply our technologies, etc are fast changing this natural cycle of conservation.

Science demands observable data from which models can be deduced with predictions. Before anything else we need to collect data and study the glaciers and that’s what glaciology is all about and that’s where I contribute most actively. Though we still don’t know the exact volume and mass of fresh water locked within the glaciers or how much of these we are losing to GW we do know it with fair amount of accuracy. Depletion of polar ice caps and glaciers will increase the rate of GW and so will it cause the oceans to rise and therefore much of this fresh water will become unusable and will need huge amount of treatment efforts to make them potable and fit for human consumption. With our current scientific advancements there is no way we can prevent this loss of fresh water neither can we store them in any artificial reservoir. Our only recourse is to reduce the rate of this loss to a level where nature’s recycling process will eventually balance out the losses.

While studying glaciers we study several aspects of the ice masses. In pure layman’s lingo they are: mass of water loss over seasons (winter / summer), mass accumulation, velocity, thickness, density, biological and meteorological debris, and weather and air constituents in the past, epoch models, etc. While there are a plethora of diverse glacier study fields, the one that is most relevant to GW is how much and how rapidly are the glaciers losing their mass. With this data, which ideally takes at least 10 years of hard and extensive field work along with remote sensing devices, models are projected to predict how the glaciers would recede and act and be in the future. Based on all the reliable models across the world, the view of the glaciated regions in 2050 is indeed a bleak one. If not us, our children would see those days. There is not a single glacier in the entire world, out of the estimated 150,000 that shows growth or steady mass. Few scientists give example of surge glaciers as the ones growing in mass but that’s an erroneous example. More than 70% of the glaciers outside of Polar Regions have receded by more than 25% in the last half a century. Nearly 10% of such glaciers do not exist anymore. Huge amount of human habitation, arable lands and properties worth trillions of dollars have been devastated by flash floods and glacier dam bursts. And mind you this is only a part of the entire GW phenomenon. Sad to admit at this point that despite such obvious and copious data and insights that our glaciers hold in terms of saving the mankind, very little have been done so far in studying them in their entirety. Indian Himalaya (including the Karakoram in Pakistan) is the least studied glaciated region in the world. Sporadic and individual studies have been done and non-conclusive papers wrapped in jargons have been written and archived in our ministries and universities. Only now, in the past few years have we started some systematic and logical efforts at studying the Indian Himalayan Glaciers.

With detailed mapping and models of glaciers will we be able to understand the problem of GW and find solutions thereafter. That’s where and how glaciers are connected to GW. They show us the most evident, obvious, measurable effects caused by GW. How receding of glaciers and loss of fresh water would deteriorate our lives further would be discussed in a subsequent post connected to GW.


  1. thanks a lot!very interesting

  2. GW has been in news now and the climate change summits. I have observed one thing that in India we are seeing that in alternate years there are more cold and snowfall. I can in no way comment on global warming but this alternate trend has been bugging me and I fail to get an answer to that.
    The article has helped understand the importance of glaciers and also the fact that they are fast depleting.
    Indian Himalayan glaciers have receded at an exceptional rate in the last decade.

  3. Interesting facts and a great insight about glaciers. Thanks Satya.